Teofilo Stevenson

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Teofilo Stevenson Lawrence is the first man to win three Olympic gold medals in the same weight division.

Born on this date in 1952 in Puerto Padre—the “City of Mills”—in the Las Tunas Province along the northern coast of Cuba, Teofilo was one of five children born to a father from the island of St. Vincent and a Cuban mother.  At nine, Teofilo began boxing at the gym where his father, who loaded sugar onto ships, sparred recreationally.  He trained under former national light heavyweight champion John Herrera and became Cuban junior champion.  Stevenson’s senior boxing career began at 17, losing in the national championships to experienced heavyweight Gabriel Garcia.  After securing a place on the national team for the 1970 Central American Championships, Stevenson lost in the final while firmly establishing himself as Cuba’s premier heavyweight.  The following year, he lost to American Duane Bobick at the 1971 Pan American Games before making the Cuban boxing team for the Munich Olympics.

After winning his first match of the 1972 Summer Olympic boxing tournament, Stevenson faced Bobick in the quarterfinals.  Bobick was considered the favorite and was expected to follow in the footsteps of Joe Frazier [1964] and George Foreman [1968] as American heavyweight Olympic champions.  Stevenson won by TKO after knocking Bobick to the canvas three times in the third round en route to the gold medal.  The Cuban team won five medals, including three gold, to establish themselves as an international boxing power while Stevenson’s convincing performance made him the world’s premier amateur heavyweight at 20.  After winning gold medals at the 1974 World Amateur Championships and 1975 Pan Am Games, Stevenson entered the 1976 Montreal Olympics as heavyweight favorite.  He knocked out future WBA champion John Tate in the semifinals and cruised to a second gold medal.  Stevenson successfully defended his titles at the 1978 World Championships and 1979 Pan Am Games before competing in his third consecutive Olympics, the 1980 Moscow Games.  After breezing past his first three  opponents, Stevenson defeated Piotr Zaev of the Soviet Union, 4-1, on his home turf to become the first Olympic boxer to win three titles in the same weight class.  Mr. Stevenson won the 1986 World Championship in Reno, Nevada, at 34 before retiring two years later.

Teofilo Stevenson was Cuba’s greatest boxer and once its most famous figure behind Fidel Castro.  At 6’5”, 220 pounds, with an effective jab and powerful right hand, Stevenson dominated worldwide amateur boxing for 15 years, helping Cuba emerge as an international power in the sport.  In addition to three Olympic golds [and likely a fourth had Cuba not boycotted the 1984 Games], “Pirilo” won two Pan Am gold medals and three World Championships in boxing’s premier division.  He scored KO’s or TKO’s in nine Olympic bouts and retired in 1988 with a record of 302-22.  Promoters could have benefitted from a Cold War era matchup pitting Stevenson, a product of the communist sports system, against Muhammad Ali, but the Cuban steadfastly refused, as the Castro government banned athletes from competing professionally.  In order to fight Ali, Stevenson would have to leave his family and defect.  In 1974, Sports Illustrated wrote, “He’d Rather Be Red Than Rich,” while Stevenson reasoned, “I didn’t need the money because it was going to mess up my life.  For professional boxers, the money is the trap.  You make a lot of money, but how many boxers do we know that died poor?  The money always goes into other people’s hands.”  In 1972, Mr. Stevenson became a Merited Master of Sport of the USSR as an international champion who has made valuable contributions to sport.  In June 2012, he died of a heart attack in Havana at 60.

Hungary’s Laszlo Papp won Olympic boxing gold medals in 1948, 1952 and 1956, but did so in two different weight divisions.  Felix Savon, a Cuban heavyweight who grew up idolizing Teofilo Stevenson, won three Olympic heavyweight titles to become the second man to win three golds in the same weight class.